Thursday, December 17, 2015

MEXICAN PRO BASEBALL LEAGUES: A Primer

While doing early research for an upcoming post about what's happening in the Veracruz Winter League, I started looking into just how many professional baseball leagues Mexico has.  I'd known of the existence of most of them but when I wrote out a list and came up with three summer leagues, three winter leagues and one that plays both seasons, I was a little surprised.  Given that I started writing about Mexican baseball ten years ago, I should've already known that a nation of 123 million people where baseball has been played since the late 19th century is likely going to have a decent infrastructure in place in 2015.

Since I've never done an overview of all the pro leagues in Mexico, this seems to be a good time for a few capsule observations from an extranero fanatico.  I'll be giving designations from AAA on down, but those will mostly be how I think they're perceived within the Mexican system, which is largely overseen by the Mexican League. I'll split this into two sections: Summer and Winter Leagues.

SUMMER LEAGUES

MEXICAN LEAGUE (AAA)
Definitely the straw that stirs the drink in Mexican baseball.  The LMB has been around since 1925 and is the unquestioned "national" league.  Also the only league outside the USA that is a member of Minor League Baseball, where it's classified as AAA and is the only independent league officially recognized by MiLB.  The LMB consists of 16 teams from Tijuana to Cancun, run its 110-game regular season from April through mid-July, with three-tier playoffs lasting into September. Except for the Mexican Pacific League, All pro baseball in Mexico flows from this league.

NORTHERN MEXICAN LEAGUE (A)
The LNM's eight franchises are located in Mexico's northwest corner, with franchises in Baja California and Sonora mostly on a line with the American border, including winter league cities Mexicali and Hermosillo.  Teams in the Liga Norte play 84-game schedules between April and mid-July with a six-team playoff similar to the Mexican Pacific League's stretching into September.  Teams are are LMB affiliates shared by two teams as their collective "Class A" feeder squad.

There was a similar AA loop, the Nothern Sonora League, that operated for 60 years before closing after the 2014 season due to financial problems. A Champion of Champions Series between the two pennant winners was held that final year, with LNS kingpin Hermosillo defeating LNM titlist San Luis Rio Colorado in six games.

ACADEMY LEAGUE (A)
Opening in 1995, the Mexican Baseball Academy near Monterrey is something that has no counterpart in the USA, a complex for players as young as 14 or 15 to live in dormitories while honing their ballplaying skills full-time. Prospects are housed, fed, schooled and coached under the auspices the Mexican League. Umpires also attend the academy before being assigned to an outside league.  Eight teams shared by two LMB franchises each play daily schedules from the end of March to late July.  The Academia website calls this a "AA" league but other sources classify it as an "A" league and that may be closer to reality.

NORTHERN COAHUILA LEAGUE (I)
This is perhaps the most "entry-level" circuit in Mexican pro ball.  The LNC is an instructional loop consisting of eight teams in the state of Coahuila near the Texas border.  Teams in the LNC play a Sunday-only, double round-robin schedule of 14 doubleheaders between March and June with no postseason.  Although not officially tied with the Mexican League, the Monclova Acereros and Puebla Pericos each own two teams and the Saltillo Saraperos own one. The LNC can trace its roots to the 1940's.

WINTER LEAGUES

MEXICAN PACIFIC LEAGUE (AAA)
Kings of winterball in Mexico since forming in the late 1940's, the MexPac (or LMP) has been the preferred winter home for both top domestic players and prospects sent by MLB organizations to Latin America for extra seasoning between October and January.  The league's eight unaffiliated teams stretch in the Mexican west from Mexicali on the California border south to Mazatlan.   The stream of minor leaguers from the north has slowed in recent years, but fans have responded with the largest attendance of any non-MLB in the northern hemisphere.  The LMP champion represents Mexico in the Caribbean Series against teams from Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  Not officially AAA, but generally regarded as playing at that level.

VERACRUZ WINTER LEAGUE (AA)
Unlike the MexPac, the Veracruz Winter League consists of six teams (four in the state of Veracruz and two more in Chiapas) that are affiliated with Mexican League clubs.  Since many LIV players perform in the LMB during the summer, the quality of play is comparable to the LMP, although the crowds don't come close to their western counterparts.  The LIV regular season runs just 30 games compared with the LMP's 70-game schedule.  Their playoff champion takes part in the Latin American Series against flag-winners from Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua.  The "AA" designation is purely personal on my part but all things considered, it seems accurate.

MEXICAN WINTER LEAGUE (A)
The LIM was created three months ago in the wake of the collapse of the Nayarit-based Northwest Baseball League (LBN) following its season last winter.  Six teams in the Central Mexican states of Aguascalientes and Guanajuato as well as Mexico City embarked on 62-game schedules October 17 with January playoffs scheduled.  The league is considered "developmental," with most players on the LMB-affiliated teams ranging from their mid-teen to early-20's, worthy of a Class A designation in Mexican ball. The Mexico City Diablos Rojos' farm team, managed by ex-Diablos star Victor Bojorquez, currently top the standings by three games with two weeks left in the regular season.

ACADEMY LEAGUE (R)
"Wait a minute," you're saying, "Isn't there already a Class A Academy League?"  Well, yes, there is...in the spring and summer.  During the fall, a separate Academy League playing with the "Rookie" designation plays a shorter season running from mid-October to mid-December.  This year, five teams with shared LMB affiliations (Saltillo fielded a single team) played 27 games each over eight weeks, all on the Academy grounds with daily doubleheaders.  A team co-owned by Mexico City and Oaxaca won the pennant with a 21-4-2 record earlier this month.

Much credit is due to Mexico City Diablos Rojos owner Alfredo Harp Helu for creating and funding a baseball academy in his native Oaxaca in 2009.  As someone who was intrigued as a kid by the Kansas City Royals Academy that Ewing Kaufmann (a great and visionary owner, IMHO, as is Harp) ran in the early 70's, I'm convinced there is value to them.  Two thumbs up to both Harp and late Quintana Roo Tigres owner Alejo Peralta, founder of the LMB Academy in El Carmen, for taking lead roles in developing academies south of the border.